Charles Dickens Jr. on the Boat Race: The Best of Times has become The Worst of Times

In 1883, Punch magazine’s view was that Oxford and Cambridge had lost control of their boat race. Those who ‘might, could, should or ought’ to be excluded include anyone who was not a product of one of the universities, regardless of their social class (represented by the varieties of headgear, from cloth cap to bowler to top hat). Commercial people (represented by the blackface minstrel) also needed to be ejected from the private party.

29 March 2017

Tiny Tim writes:

The Oxford–Cambridge Boat Race has been thought of as ‘Going To The Dogs’ at many periods during its long life. In 1881, the son of the greatest novelist of the Victorian era penned one of the more eloquent complaints that ‘things are not what they used to be’ as regards the annual race between the boat clubs of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In modern times, similar grievances are often produced the day before the Boat Race by non-rowing hacks with urgent orders for 500 words. They put their hand into their grab bag of ignorance and pull out some combination of ‘over commercialisation /too many foreigners/ too few undergraduates /not real students /all posh idiots’ which they then cut and paste into a space filler. HTBS has rebuffed all these stereotypes over the years but, briefly, the last two are simply not true, while the first three reflect modern universities and modern high performance rowing. Without commercial sponsorship for example, the women would not be on the Tideway.

Returning to Charles Dickens Junior (1837-1896), his Wikipedia page notes that he was:

A failed businessman (who) became the editor of his father’s magazine ‘All the Year Round’, and a successful writer of dictionaries. He is now most remembered for…… ’Dickens’s Dictionary of London’ and ‘Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames’.

The 1861 Oxford Crew – one from a Golden Age?

First rowed in 1829, the Oxford–Cambridge Boat Race became an annual event only from 1856. Thus, it was a little over 50 years old when Dickens Junior wrote his ‘Dictionary of the Thames’. This is just the right amount of time to imagine that the Great British Institution had once had a ‘Golden Age’, perhaps before the 1860s. Dickens lamented that:

Not many years ago the annual eight-oared race between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge was an event which concerned only the crews, their friends, the members of the Universities, and that small portion of the general public which took pleasure in river sports. It was a quiet, friendly sort of gathering enough in those days. The comparatively few people who watched the practice of the crews all seemed to know each other. It was a wonderful week for parsons. Past University oarsmen, their jerseys exchanged for the decorous high waistcoat, the white choker taking the place of the rowing-man’s muffler, were to be met all over Putney, and about Seattle’s yard and the London Boat-house. The towing-path was a sort of Rialto or High Change, on which old friends who had rowed in the same boat years ago, and had since gone down into the struggle and fight of the world by many different paths, met and renewed their youth as they talked over old times, and criticised their successors. There were but few rowing-clubs then; the river had not become the fashion; the professional touts and tipsters had not fastened on the boat-race; the graphic reporter as yet was not……. It seemed indeed to be the only event that kept alive that idea of sport for its own sake which was fast fading out, if it was not already extinct, in most other contests…. Of course it was all too good to last. The popularising process which has gone on with everything else was not likely to spare the boat-race… 

1890: The Lyric Club in Barnes catered for the sort of Boat Race supporters that Punch approved of, that is, Old Blues and their ladies.
The ‘Popularising Process’: Boat Race crowds downstream of Barnes Bridge, 1881. In a time of widespread poverty and few amusements, a spectacle to which access could not be restricted or charged for was always going to attract the masses.
Punch magazine, again noting some of the types that were going to the Boat Race.

Continuing his theme of O tempora o mores, Dickens later continued:

Cabmen, butcher boys, and, omnibus drivers sport the colours of the Universities in all directions: the dark blue of Oxford and the light blue of Cambridge fill all the hosiers’ shops, and are flaunted in all sorts of in describable company…

In 1872, French artist, Gustave Doré, a man rather transfixed by the wretched lives of the poor, produced three studies of the Boat Race – or rather, of the crowds watching it. This is of spectators on old Putney Bridge.
Doré’s “The Race”. Tom Weil has written: ‘The four blades at the margin provide the context for the title, but the mass of spectators swarming over the following steamers offers the more accurate description of the event. The Boat Race was much more than a contest’.
Doré’s view of the old Hammersmith Bridge on race day.

Dickens later effectively complains that too much is written about the Boat Race in the press. Sadly, today the opposite is true and even quality newspapers seem to publish less and less text on the race every year. They are no longer inclined to have specialist correspondents and give an increasing amount of their declining resources to soccer and the other widely popular sports.

First of all aquatics generally grew more in favour, and so a larger public was attracted to take an interest in the battle of the blues. Then the newspapers took the subject up, and the graphic reporter worked his will with the race and its surroundings, and the extraordinary multiplication of sporting newspapers and sporting articles in papers of all sorts, let loose any number of touts on to the towing-path. The gushing reporter not only attends the race itself, but disports himself on the towing-path after his peculiar and diverting fashion on practice days, and daily develops the strangest conglomeration of views on matters aquatic in the greatest possible number of words… 

1875: The press launch (right) accompanies the umpire’s launch (left). The man centre left is holding a long pole with a dark blue and a light blue marker to transmit the relative positions of the crews.
’Sketches at Putney’ (1875). More pictorial evidence that, perhaps as early as the 1870s, the Boat Race Day was no longer for the privileged few, it was in fact the national institution that it still is today. Had the event not become part of British heritage, I think it unlikely that the annual Battle of the Blues would now even be in existence – let alone flourishing as it is.

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